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Friday, Feb. 27, 2009
'The Life Before Her Eyes'
Unusual take on school massacre falls short
By KAORI SHOJI
A woman's life isn't easy at 17 years old, and it doesn't get much better at 32, even when the woman is equipped with shimmering blonde hair and dazzling outfits that look they jumped straight out of a Ralph Lauren ad.
This cuticle-destroying difficulty-of-it-all dilemma is told with beautiful but occasionally unbearable and lingering angst in "The Life Before Her Eyes."
It's directed by Vadim Perelman ("The House of Sand and Fog," 2003) who definitely has a thing about women's hair, going overboard with the slow-motion swinging of perfect manes. Quite often he lapses into shampoo-commercial mode (you almost except the cast to declare that they recommend Lux) before waking up and swerving back to the plot.
It's summertime in the life of bored and gorgeous Diana (Evan Rachel-Wood). Spending afternoons with her best friend, Maureen (Eva Amurri), is pleasant enough, but Diana can't relate to her friend's good-girl, church-going lifestyle.
Sleeping with older boyfriend Marcus (Oscar Issac) gives her some happiness, but the relationship quickly turns sad and vulgar upon Diana's pregnancy and subsequent abortion.
Diana is fiercely individualistic, filled with the potential for an interesting life, but she's hindered by her good looks and inherent apathy.
Vignettes out of her life unfold before our eyes — the golden light filtering through the trees as she walks up the steps into her school building with a half-pouting, lazy drawl in her voice as she chats with Maureen. While Diana tries to instill some teenage irreverence into the overly sober Maureen, the other tries to give her a sense of grounded reality and a dose of humility.
Their carefully constructed relationship comes to a sudden halt one morning in the girls' bathroom when the pair, gussying themselves in front of the mirror, hear screams and gunshots from the other side of the door. A classmate has come to school with an automatic rifle, on a personal mission to annihilate everyone.
Fast forward 15 years and Diana (Uma Thurman) has matured into the mother of 7-year-old Emma (Gabrielle Brennan) and married respected university Professor Paul McFee (Brett Cullen).
Thurman plays this older woman with amazing perception — the once restless girl has fulfilled her dreams, but when she lets her guard down, the old fidgety irritation rises again, triggering dissatisfaction. Emma is no comfort, especially as she reminds Diana of her own flighty and unpredictable temperament, and she complains to Paul almost every night: "Even I never started that young."
As the life of Diana at 32 unfolds, the audience too, will be a little disappointed. Diana — that once prickly but interesting creature — has turned into a banal version of female success. She has the tastefully decorated house, sleek car, loving husband and a garden crammed with luscious blooms. But an unexplained discontent has grown inside her like a tumor, and she can trace its emergence back to that morning in the girl's bathroom, 15 years back.
The Columbine High School Massacre is the obvious inspiration here, an event that Gus Van Sant tackled with a documentarylike indifference in his 2003 film "Elephant." Perelman takes the incident out of the school and away from other students, crystallizing it in the personas of Diana and Maureen. How do they react and what do they say, when a geeky boy named Michael (John Meguro) bursts in with a rifle and forces them to choose which of the two should die? While "Elephant" was marked by an almost total lack of emotion, Perelman squeezes every last drop of protracted terror and teenage angst from that bathroom scene — returning to it again and again with what begins to resemble fetishistic glee. There's something wrong about the way Diana picks up her life after this and becomes the sort of golden role-model woman that 17-year-old girls supposedly aspire to. But Perelman does pull a rabbit out of his hat — there is more to the young Diana and how she conducted herself in the face of terror. Unfortunately, the older Diana never gets a chance to prove herself in this way. Her life, successful and beautiful as it is, somehow recalls Coco Chanel's maxim that a woman's life is "unbearable to look at until she turns 39."